Escalating signs that China is using its $9 billion annual spend by international students as leverage in its increasingly tense relations with Australia has prompted rapid action in Canberra to try to limit the damage in one of the nation’s most lucrative export markets.
More than 20 Chinese school visits to NSW have recently been cancelled and at least four high-level meetings between Australian vice-chancellors and senior Chinese education figures scheduled for January have been “postponed”.
Last week China’s consulate in Sydney posted a message on its website warning students of the potential dangers of studying in Australia.
Phil Honeywood, chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia, said Australia was a safe and welcoming destination for all international students.
“It’s unfortunate that certain Chinese interests are using education to potentially punish Australia for foreign security concerns that are unrelated,” Mr Honeywood said.
He pointed out that any claims that “Australia is anything but a very safe, welcoming study destination makes a nonsense of the longstanding and fruitful association that our two nations have developed.”
Fears the escalating friction could have serious economic consequences for Australia’s $31bn-a-year education export industry have prompted federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham to release a video for international students.
“Minister Birmingham has already attempted to proactively intervene in this debate and has launched a video over the weekend which the sector is being encouraged to distribute in which he emphasises that Australia is a welcoming, safe destination for Chinese students,” Mr Honeywood said.
It is understood that Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has also made overtures to China regarding the education sector.
In the video, Senator Birmingham says: “Australia is also a safe and friendly place in which to live and study and there are plenty of people who will support you through your studies and make sure you get the most out of your experience.
“In fact, a 2016 survey of more than 65,000 international students studying here found that 93 per cent rated personal safety as a key reason for choosing Australia as a study destination.”
Preparations are under way for an official visit by Senator Birmingham to China later this year, and it is understood Universities Australia plans to send a delegation of vice-chancellors to China in April.
China appears to be using the education sector to signal its displeasure with Australian policy, although it remains unclear exactly what has caused the friction — it could be disagreements over the South China Sea, or Australia’s criticism of Chinese efforts to influence Australian universities.
On February 14, the Chinese consulate in Sydney posted a message in Chinese (with translation to English option) warning of “several cases of infringement on the personal and property safety” of Chinese students studying in different parts of Australia.
The message, which followed a similar post in mid-December on the website of China’s foreign ministry, has been seen as veiled retaliation for Australia’s recent pronouncements regarding Chinese influence.
The posts could potentially convince Chinese students and their parents that Australia is an unsafe place to live and study, and they have been seen as China’s way of demonstrating that it can cause some damage here, which could be escalated if Beijing felt the situation warranted it.
Mr Honeywood remained optimistic that the tensions would be short-lived. “Based on previous issues that China has had with NZ and Norway, such issues tend to be of a temporary nature until the relationship is put back on an even keel,” he said.